Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Veiled Detective: Sherlock Holmes (&) the New Woman

So Arthur Conan Doyle based his detective duo on a lizard from the dawn of time and her wife. Madame Vastra, a Silurian (lizard-looking alien who eats humans), is known as the Great Detective (she tracked and ate Jack the Ripper) and Jenny, a Victorian human, is a sword-fighting former match girl.

Or, merry Christmas from Steven Moffatt, current Doctor Who (and Sherlock) showrunner, doing his bit for equal marriage rights. In yesterday's Christmas episode, The Snowmen, the dynamic duo were greeted by villain Dr. Simeon with the reveal that Vastra, known also as the Veiled Detective, was Doyle's inspiration. An in-jokey cross-reference of course, but also - possibly - an admission from Moffatt that there something missing in the state of Sherlock. As there has been in Doctor Who: this is not the time or post to go into everything groanworthy about Moffatt's Whovian arc, but briefly: everything, and particularly his treatment of female characters who are never... themselves. Clara Oswin Oswald, the new companion, looks like she'll present a similar problem, being an impossibility (the girl who died twice) who, far from being a vampire slayer, will be a temporal impurity the Doctor will have to erase.

Dialling back the predictions, though, it's safe to say that Moffatt has a problem with women. Or rather,  with girls who become women. It's all marvellous when she is Amelia in her nightdress or Jeanne Poisson in her nightdress (hmmm), but as soon as these spitfire girls - who need the Doctor as a protector - attain womanhood (or at least adolescence) they become something threatening: sexual beings who snog the Doctor and dizzy him. And so they must be abandoned, duplicated, sacrificed, fragmented (River), married off (Rory!), or otherwise written out.

Now, obviously, the character of the Doctor as conceived since the dawn of time, is an escapist bachelor fantasy: one that Moffatt also identifies in Sherlock Holmes. His Sherlock is, to me, as problematic as his Doctor. The writing might be sharper in the former than the latter, but the characterisation depends, again, on such a limited and depressing gendered binary that I find it unwatchable. Again, further analysis is for another time.

Because my Moffatt-bashing may have something to do with my absolute devotion to the one, the only incarnation of Sherlock Holmes: the magnificent Jeremy Brett. I grew up with Brett's Holmes, from 1984 to 1994, all 2358 minutes (approx., according to the box set) of aquiline deduction and irascible line deliveries. Whether the codex or televisual Holmes came first to my consciousness is lost in the mists of times: they are intertwined. My uncle gave me the Penguin Collected Sherlock Holmes when I was still at primary school; in my final year, I won the public speaking competition as Holmes, with a riddling speech in the first person leading up to the declaration, "Who am I? It's elementary."

I was a strange child, and I still am. The postcard from the Sherlock Holmes museum, which informed me that Mr. Holmes could not answer my question because he had retired to keep bees in Sussex, still rankles in its insinuation that I couldn't tell fact from fiction. I was a Holmesian: astutely in tune to the crucial distinctions between the real and imagined.

Rewatching the entire 2358 minutes of Brett's Holmes earlier this year, I was amazed by how fallible my memory of the series was, given my devotion to it, but also by how vivid. Fragments, moments, expressions, phrasings persist where plots had fallen away. Unlike many avid Doyle readers, I never became a fan of detective fiction. It wasn't Holmes' deductive method, or the tangled webs from which he extricated himself, that interested me.

What was it? I've been wondering all year how to describe, or even identify, it. From the off, though, the ordering of the ITV adaptations hinted at something confirmed by the magnificent, melancholy concluding episodes: Holmes, like his exact contemporary Sigmund Freud (who moved from physiological to mental deduction), listens to women. In fact, he listens "like a woman" (to quote, contingently, cultural norms).

Moffatt's Sherlock, among his other deficiencies, does not: he is rude, abrasive, disengaged. Debates have raged online about whether his Watson's joking reference to autism is in fact intended as a diagnosis, with fewer debates about the complexities of what this means - from the stereotyping of the autistic 'savant' to the mechanisms of autism. Whether Moffatt's and Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock is intended to be an autistic character or not, he behaves brusquely and even brutishly towards the emotions and imaginations of others. Brett's Holmes is, rather, like a taut violin string sensitive to every emotion and imagining around him: hence his brusqueness, not because he is unaware, but because he is too aware.

And with this awareness, like Freud, what he hears is the plight of middle-class women, often New Women. The ITV cycle begins with A Scandal in Bohemia, the first short story to be published in The Strand Magazine in 1891. In it, Holmes meets his match, not in Moriarty, but in Irene Adler, a woman of exceptional intelligence and courage, determined to pursue her feelings against social norms: she turns down the affections of a king. Holmes, commissioned by the king to steal back a photograph from this woman out of fear of blackmail, ends up switching sides. In Moffatt's version of the story, A Scandal in Belgravia, the female suspect is wily and manipulative, using her erotic capital to both flummox and inform Holmes - who is beaten by her, but does not respect her.

Brett's Holmes harbours a Platonic love for Adler, evinced by his possession of a photograph of her, hidden in a drawer as her photograph of the King was hidden in a safe. Holmes does not save Adler (she does that herself), but he keeps her safe, one could say. Subsequent episodes in the first ITV run, entitled The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and not even vaguely related to publication order (only sampling the published collection known by the same title), feature similarly bold, brave women to whom Holmes increasingly lends a sympathetic ear.

There are wives who fear the return of the repressed (for example, in the second episode The Dancing Men) or disgrace attendant on their dependence on their husband (third episode The Naval Treaty). But there are particularly young, unmarried New Women, threatened by indeterminate and suggestive forces. Episode four, The Solitary Cyclist, focuses on Violet Smith, a middle-class young woman impoverished by her father's death, and working as a music teacher to provide for her mother and earn enough to marry her fiancé. Cycling to the railway station to take the train to her mother's, she is followed by an unidentified male cyclist, whom she suspects of being either her employer or his boorish guest, both of whom have expressed a competing attraction to her.

What saves this from being an all-too-familiar tale of the (depicted as) self-inflicted peril of the unmarried woman daring to be out in the world is Holmes' attention to the details of Smith's case, the way in which he treats her, first of all as a serious client even though she is not wealthy; and second of all as a serious and credible witness to her own almost supernatural circumstance. It was only in the 1880s and 1890s that the safety cycle had attracted women to bicycling in great numbers, providing - in tandem with the railway - freedom of movement for the increasing numbers of working middle-class women. Violet Smith is a model of such a woman, and the story offers a sympathetic and ultimately vindicating account of the threat posed by and to the New Woman by hardened Victorian patriarchal attitudes. Smith's forced marriage is annulled, her fortune is rightly inherited and the two competing suitors are both punished. It's an upside-down fairy tale, one that depends not only on Holmes' deductive skills but on his willingness to trust Smith, and hers to participate, dangerously, as bait.

That danger is multiplied in The Speckled Band, one of the creepiest of Doyle's stories - and perhaps the most Freudian, featuring mirroring sisters, a death on the eve of a wedding, and - finally - a snake that slithers from a stepfather's bedroom and down a bell-pull. Helen Stoner, another young fiancée living precariously in the house of a man who is neither father nor husband, braves her stepfather's considerable disapproval to contact Holmes; in fact, he follows her to Holmes' office and demands to know what she's told the detective. In this, even before the snake appears, Dr. Roylott comes across as the classic sexual abuser. Words can't describe the satisfaction of Holmes striking Roylott's swamp adder and sending it back through the ventilation shaft to bite its owner.

Like Freud, Holmes appears to identify and refuse to indemnify the source of his young female clients' oppression and terror: the older men who hold monetary and social power over them. In another Adventures episode, The Copper Beeches, governess Violet Hunter (a first featured TV role for Natasha Richardson) finds herself the subject of strange, quasi-sexual ministrations by her employer, only to discover (at considerable personal danger) that she is impersonating the locked-up daughter of the house: a profound and clever pastiche of all those "madwoman in the attic" novels.

It's a trope that appears again in The Eligible Bachelor, one of the most ambitious of the ITV adaptations, a film-length episode that takes the fairly simple Holmes story The Noble Bachelor and meshes it with elements borrowed from other stories, as well as inventions. In the opening act, Holmes attends a rehearsal of an Ibsen play (Hedda Gabler, I think), a signature embodiment of the Woman Question and women's contemporaneous struggles for self-determination. The lead actress, Flora Miller, becomes a character in the story - an informant - but it is with a darker, Gothic fantasy that the episode concludes. The bright young American bride-to-be (an echo of American opera singer Irene Adler, perhaps), Hetty Doran, disappears and reappears, persuaded by Holmes to undertake that dangerous adventure of being bait that appears in The Solitary Cyclist and The Speckled Band. Wandering through the guignol fantasia of her betrothed's abandoned country house, she is chased by a leopard (there's also a leopard in The Speckled Band), which leads Holmes to an animal pit that conceals Lord Robert St. Simon's first wife, whom he had committed and then - when she was maddened by confinement - returned to his estate where she was caged like an animal.

A truly remarkable woman, Amelia has sustained her sanity by turning her cage into a trap - intended for St. Simon. With Holmes' help, she escapes, and in the final shot of the episode, she attends the opera (another Adler reference) with him. Many viewers deride the episode, in common with many directed by Peter Hammond, for its hammy inclusion of such Gothic elements, its pick-n-mix approach to adaptation, and its use of the supernatural: Amelia appears to Holmes in dreams that lead him into a depression: he believes an animalistic woman is coming to destroy him. Watson even suggests that Holmes consult a Viennese doctor, Sigmund Freud, about these dreams. But Hammond and screenwriter T. R. Bowen invert the dream's apparent vision of the castrating woman, by having Holmes and Amelia rescue each other: he rescues her physically, but she rescues him spiritually.

Among other stories, The Eligible Bachelor borrows from Doyle's The Veiled Lodger, bringing us back to Madame Vastra and Moffatt's counter-intuitive insight given his own depiction of Holmes. Veiled within the great detective is not only a sensitivity, but an attunement to the Woman Question (equality of education, employment and independence) that lies at the heart of some of the greatest Holmes stories. ITV's adaptation, perhaps fuelled by the second wave of feminism in the 1970s, brings this strand out. The plot is almost always the same, whether in The Hound of the Baskervilles (another version flubbed by Moffatt) or The Master Blackmailer: double standards and asymmetrical power. The solution that compelled - and compels - me is not the unravelling of the crime but the stark and subtle reveal of the far greater power behind the crime: not Moriarty, but patriarchy.

Like Freud, who changed his mind about seduction theory under social pressure, Doyle was a man of his time, both alive to inequality and - in other ways - blind to it. It's undeniable that the Holmes of the stories can also be classist, racist and sexist, dismissing people as inadequate based on a few trace facts about their identity. Franco Moretti has shown that Doyle's crime map of London bears no resemblance to the recorded criminal activity reported by Scotland Yard and the media, but rather an instinctual bias against working class people and immigrants. But the ITV series - and here credit must go, I think, to Brett as the one constant as directors and screenwriters changed around him - finds a Holmes that resonates deeply with a century of change: Holmes, (friend of) the New Woman.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Nowhere or Now Here: William Morris' Utopia

'Strangely?' said he. 'Is it strange to sympathise with the year and its gains and losses?'
There's not many science fiction novels whose plot motor is getting upriver for the harvest. Maybe only one: William Morris' News from Nowhere, first published as a book in 1890. It opens with a disgruntled man leaving a Socialist meeting in London, where discussions "as to what would happen on the Morrow of the Revolution" had turned into a petty argument. He walks home to Hammersmith, and wakes up the next morning a century in the future, on that morrow. He travels through London and then down the Thames with a friendly utopian, shipping up at Kelmscott Manor, Morris' own house of later life. At the culmination of the book - at a harvest feast in Kelmscott's village church - the narrator simply fades from his companions' awareness, returning to his house in present-day Hammersmith.

It's an incredibly efficient and effective narrative device, one that opens up the real motor of the novel: how did the world change? And how does that change follow from, and bear out, Morris' own practical and political socialism.

Morris' first person narrator is at once overwhelmed with happiness and apprehensive about the post-industrial, post-capitalist egalitarian utopia in which he has awoken, and it's this combination of delight and melancholy (that change has not been achieved in his own time) that draws the reader on through long dialogues with utopian citizens. Morris breaks that hoary saw "show don't tell" endlessly: his characters, who predominantly disapprove of books, turn telling (back) into a vivid art. There are didactic strictures on labour, class, exchange and architecture, and plenty of them, but they are delivered in character and in tonal harmony.

Morris places some excellent and entertaining (to me) rants about the novel as a form in various characters' mouths. While art, architecture and craft - indeed, all forms of physical and material beauty - are highly valued in the novel, the linguistic arts, whether conversation or letters, are looked on with suspicion, giving the novel a curiously astringent character, an asperity towards its own means. And indeed, as a literary work, it fulfils the contract it sets out by not falling into any of the traps it identifies. Here Ellen, the most perceptive of the utopians, the only one who can see that the narrator is from the past, comments frankly:
As for your books, they were well enough for your times when intelligent people had but little else in which they could take pleasure, and when they must needs supplement the sordid miseries of their own lives with imaginations of the lives of other people. But I say flatly that in spite of all their cleverness and vigour, and capacity for storytelling, there is something loathsome about them. Some of them, indeed, do here and there show feeling for those whom the history-books call 'poor,' and of the misery of whose lives we have some inkling; but presently they give it up, and towards the end of the story we must be contented to see the hero and heroine living happily in an island of bliss on other people's troubles; and that after a long series of sham troubles (or mostly sham) of their own making, illustrated by dreary introspective nonsense about their feelings and aspirations, and all the rest of it; while the rest of the world must even then have gone on its way, and dug and sewed and baked and built and carpentered around these useless - animals.
Take that, Jane Austen. Ellen is also perceptive as to the effects of this cultural production on the minds that absorb it, noting later that the narrator ' "nurse[s] a sham sorrow, like the ridiculous characters in some of those queer old novels." ' She's right: and it's part of what's gripping about the second half of the novel: the narrator's absolute conviction that he will lose, or be dismissed from, this utopia. Ellen identifies it as a self-fulfilling prophecy: the narrator is held back from his full participation in the utopia by his conviction that he must lose it, that he is unworthy or unwelcome, and also right that this mode of thought derives from his cultural background. He cannot prise himself out of the narrative mode and shape with to he is accustomed.

But the narrator experiences his awakening as a wake-up call. Morris was deeply familiar with medieval poetry (not least through the creation of the Kelmscott Chaucer), and the motif of the spiritual dream in which the dreamer is saddened to awake from his vision of heaven, but also invigorated by awakening with his new knowledge, is echoed by the end of the book. The narrator remembers 'Ellen's last mournful look' and interprets it as handing him a mission for his return, to work towards the realisation of the future he has seen. So the experience narrated by the book takes its place as the 'dream' intended by medieval poets, rather than Symbolist or (given the book was published in 1890) psychoanalytic writers: as a revealed reality, experienced through intense longing.
Yes, surely! and if others can see it as I have seen it, then it may be called a vision rather than a dream.
With this final sentence, News from Nowhere also sets out a new vision of the novel as utopian form or project: not to draw the reader in through a cascade of inorganic crises and tensions leading to  a normative and normalising resolution, but to present its world-building as a vision: detailed, and even dove-tailed, as Morris' narrative architecture is. Why shouldn't the year's gains and losses be as effective and intriguing a rhythm for narrative as the three-act structure?

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Revolution Will Not Be Fantasised: G. Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen

I'm very glad that Alif the Unseen exists - and indeed, glad that its author G. Willow Wilson exists and is making work in comics and fiction. What she says of the Arab Spring -- "For good or ill, those kids were imagining a brave new world" -- is also true of her work. Alif the Unseen is an exciting, credible and witty fusion of Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass, and the films, blogs and fiction that have come pouring out of the Arab Spring. It's full of gorgeous ideas about metaphor as world-coding (like China Mieville's Embassytown) and about reversing the Enlightenment cleaving of the rational, empirical world from the spiritual (or science fiction from fantasy, to put it generically). The best, most paradigmatic line in the book is probably when a shadow-djinn in the sideways spirit world of the Empty Quarter tells Alif, the hacktivist protagonist: "Brother, we have Wifi."

I'm with Willow Wilson in her take on Asimov's third law --"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" -- which is that any technology, from making fire onwards, is magic; that is, an extension of the human imagination made possible. There's a lovely scene where an imam explains to Alif that scholars considering the laws concerning travel to Mecca predicted, legislatively, air travel by several centuries. Technology actualises imagination one way; magic another; fictional writing partakes of both. Human cultures include both, strategically as it serves them, and often make technology in the image of magic, and vice versa.

So why did I feel dissatisfied at the end of the book -- a book, moreover, in which a book is all-powerful; in which language is revered; in which politics are foregrounded? I wonder if it's because the book-within-a-book highlights another division, one that transcends genres and the whole "science fiction is more radical than fantasy because it's futurological, technological, rationalist / fantasy is more holistic than science fiction because it embraces and expands tradition/history, is non-teleological, non-techno-fetishist" blah blah blah. The book-within-a-book is Alf Yeom Wa Yeom, Wilson's fictional counterpart to Alf Layla Wa Layla, or The Thousand and One [Arabian] Nights. The Alf Yeom is a classic narrative device, like the Ring of Power in Lord of the Rings: stolen, powerful, ambiguous, carried by an innocent who gradually taps into its power. It drives character development and action.

Yet Wilson also goes William Gibson/Kathy Acker/Samuel Delany/Mieville and suggests the book does more: it can hack reality. Not just through its ideas (which is fortunate, as Wilson's attempt to write allegorical, multivalent tales on the model of Alf Layla is a little embarrassing) but through its linguistic and narrative properties. The idea of the book-as-code (and the story-as-code) is not a new one, but Wilson runs with it impressively. Until she doesn't: the book fails as code, the world doesn't change, and it's left to old-school narrative fiction and its car chase/dream/fight/puzzle tropes to save the day.

The book doesn't follow through formally on what it's saying narratively, in other words. It's not a multivalent allegory, nor - like Acker's Empire of the Senseless - does it hack language and linear narrative as codes that structure the world. Instead - details of Gulf culture aside - it reproduces them. As the argument runs, car chases and shoot-outs make accessible radical material (the fusion of Islam and computer technology) that readers might otherwise resist. But master's tools, master's house: reproducing the form of EuroWestern science fiction, down to its getting-the-girl ending, is frustrating; it's just as frustrating in Doctorow's Little Brother, which argues for revolution but faithfully reproduces the beats of conventional narrative (less successfully than Wilson does, although her fight scenes are rather confused and desultory).

On the other hand, readers hardly flock to Delany or Acker, says conventional wisdom -- aka, the accountants at publishers. It's true that His Dark Materials spread critical thinking about fundamentalisms far and wide -- but ultimately, the books were broadly palatable and their political message dulled by their narrative imperatives. Thus, I think there is an argument for relocating the binary, if we need to have one, not between science fiction and fantasy, but between books that follow conventional narrative structure (as inherited from the Victorian novel via Hollywood cinema), often with didactic purpose; and books that take the premise of their content seriously in allowing it to affect their form, so a novel isn't just about hacking, it's hacked -- it's not just drawing material from sagas, it explores the saga form.

What's radical is not only the ideas a book puts in the mouth of its characters, but whether it puts its money where its mouth is, and lets those ideas change the novel itself. Wilson appears to explore this through the Alf Yeom, with its allegories imparted through interactive oral storytelling, but in the end the story tells us explicitly that this revolution - in which metaphors fully mean, in which their multivalence is realised as the structure of reality, in which imagination and the empirical world are recognised as mutually constitutive and thus fiction can hack RL - makes the world unstable. And that applies, it seems from the final chapters, to other revolutions too...

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Trains, Janes and Automobiles: Variations on a (Jane) Eyre

I haven't quite finished Margot Livesey's The Flight of Gemma Hardy, but I wanted to write this now (just in case I'm reading the book's signals wrong and it doesn't follow through on its line of flight from Jane Eyre). Gemma is an orphan raised and then cast out by her aunt, schooled at a brutal boarding school, then hired as au pair to a motherless child in an isolated great house. Eighteen and starved of affection, she is swept off her feet by her wordly, wealthy employer, only to have their hasty wedding halted by a revelation that causes her to flee -- almost to her death. Cared for by a rural family, she is torn between a desire to make a life for herself and the memory of passion.

Livesey follows the characters and plot of Jane Eyre almost every step of the way. The book is particularly good at taking small incidents and themes from Charlotte Bronte's novel -- the significance of birds, questions of faith, the chain of abandoned or badly-cared-for children -- and expanding them. Relocated to post-war Scotland, Livesey's Jane -- Gemma/Jean -- finds herself astonishingly close to the poverty and limited options of Bronte's Jane. But Livesey is also careful to note what has changed, and how the world around Gemma is changing. There are professional women (a vet, a chemist), as well as many kinds of teachers, farmers and housekeepers. There are also women artists -- a musician and a potter -- living the lives that women like the Brontes carved into public consciousness.

Gemma, like Jane, encounters the kindness of strangers, but -- unlike Jane -- through these strangers her world expands. Not (so far) to the missionary fantasy of St. John Rivers (yup, the bit of Jane Eyre everyone forgets or passes over, myself included), but through education, local history and botany, and through Gemma's own story. Her mother was Scottish, her father Icelandic, and she spent her childhood in a fishing village in Iceland before being brought back to Perth by her uncle. So encoded in Gemma's story from the start is flight: travel, escape, freedom, migration. This gives the book a lightness and sense of possibility other than the romantic myth with which Jane Eyre is primarily identified: "Reader, I married" the Great Man, and moreover, the Great House.

Gemma traverses Scotland by train, bus, ferry, van, car and foot; Jane Eyre, too, is a great walker (and occasional user of the post-chaise), but Gemma's journeys take the central place of Jane's relationship to Rochester's house, Thornfield Hall. Instead of the Gothic romance of Bluebeard's Castle -- seductive for all its dangers -- Livesey offers a feminine On the Road, a peripatetic tale of bus stations, cheap hotels, Teddy boys, fish and chips, and sea-sickness. Exploring the heart of a novel about a woman who longs for a home, she finds a new story: a woman who realises that home can be (and has been, for her) a prison; that a home where she is mastered is no home. That she can move.

Livesey's not the first to uncover this taking-flight of Jane into the Eyre. Siobhan Dowd's Solace of the Road tells an even more modern story, of a fourteen year old girl called Holly Hogan who runs away from her foster home in London in an attempt to return to her lost mother in Ireland. Taking only a wig, a copy of Jane Eyre and a nom de voyage, Solace too meets kindness and cruelty (both new and remembered), good luck and awful accidents. Postmodernly, she muses on the resonance of her fate with Jane's, drawing on her knowledge of the only school book she'd ever liked to understand her own journey, especially when she separated from her possessions and stilled by missing a train.

As its title suggests, the sensation of movement offers solace -- at the very least, the solace of choosing to leave a situation, choosing a goal and aiming for it. In Livesey's and Bronte's novels, walking is a solace in itself, both the movement of the body and the opportunity for solitude and observation. Modern transport extends that solace, enabling Gemma/Jean and Holly/Solace to travel farther (and faster) than Jane: not only around the country, but into themselves and their futures.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Doorstoppers & Other Excuses

The Alexandria Quartet.
The Master and Margarita.
Star Maker. (And Last and First Men.)
Ilium. And, indeed, the Iliad.

It's been a summer of big books: physically large and intellectually capacious. Each of them plays crazy games with scale, whisking the reader from 1930s Moscow to Herod's Jerusalem to Walpurgisnacht and back, or billions of years into the future and light-years across space, or into the perception of character after character viewing the same compressed events.

Hence the radio silence. Not only because reading the books demands time and attention, but because I've been obliquely focused on trying to work out how they do what they do: shifting scale (and even tone) yet following a thread; offering both a gripping narrative and a theory of narration as a way of being, a metaphysics.

There's no diagram, or even argument, I can offer: this apprehension is not outwardly analytical (that energy has been taken up with Margaret Tait and Maya Deren). It's a kind of proprioception, a thinking out of the corner of the mind. It doesn't (just) demand a graphed structural analysis but an observation of both the text and the reading experience.

I am trying to put into words something that remains, importantly and resolutely, unverbalised in my thinking. Not to mystify it, but to allow it to operate without the intensive censorial forces that operate in second-order thinking. It's as if I push the process wilfully into the unconscious, even though it is willed and analytical.

But perhaps that makes sense, because at the same time -- in writing -- I am trying to move unconscious processes into conscious access without compromising them; subjecting them to the rational order of the alphabet, syntax and literary history (among other constraints). And perhaps that's why the Alexandria Quartet is the text that most haunts me, as a story of exactly that process: it's a book about a writer turning his most intimate experiences over in words, only to be forced to re-view them through others' (equally unstable) perceptions. Durrell was well-read in Freud: in the books, that's mostly apparent in the metaphysics of sex, but sex -- and Justine -- are (as in de Sade, to whom the book is dedicated epigraphicallu) figures of the operation of the unconscious.

Bulgakov's rowdy, melancholy novel is also a series of interlinked incompossible iterations that try to capture the internal truth of the writing process. Folded into the external bleak comedy of bumbling, pompous producers, publishers and poets -- all the external apparatus of the literary industry -- is a burnt novel about a man who keeps writing the wrong thing (Herod) -- and bridging the two, the figure of the Lovers.

Even Olaf Stapledon's treatise (he never called it a novel) is framed by the device of the Lovers, as the unnamed narrator contemplates his partnership as a model of the forces holding together and driving forward the universe -- well aware of the fragility of the relationship, and of relationship itself.

Ilium, Dan Simmons' acclaimed take on the Iliad, is also about text -- but about reading rather than writing. It's less honest -- no, less sincere -- than the other three books. But it's interesting that modish, tech-savvy SF should still be so concerned with high EuroWestern literary culture, and indeed with the physical object of the book and the skill of reading, not to mention authenticity. It feels very conservative compared to the others.

The inevitable fate of genre fiction? Of postmodernism compared to the modern? I don't think so. Its scale remains compelling (the book as object again). Other questions: all books by white men. It's true that few women essay texts on this scale. Or if they do, they are often forgotten or ignored. Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy is up next for re-reading: definitely a metaphysics of generation and culture. And Abdouramen Waberi's In the United States of Africa after that (when it arrives). There is something about a big, ambitious book -- a book that restructures the reader's spacetime -- that I need right now. Not just the shift of scale or play of ideas. Not escapism or hand-ache. Ambition? Edge? The limits of the novel form? Yes.

More though: a teemingness that presents other minds observing the crisis of their time in all its awful complexity, and turning insistently to language, thought, literature as media for that complexity and as a bulwark against the awfulness. A Romantic, humanist notion, no doubt, to prefer books to protests, and unresolved contradictory masses of ideas propounded by flawed beings to hard and fast manifesti. But the need for expansiveness -- spacetime to think, to be in the full multilayeredness of being in history and a body -- that's what these books offer. Now, how can I do that in my work?